Robotics can seem like a very strange activity to any not familiar. It's a sport... that involves robots?? How does that even work? Where other sports exercise your muscles like those on your arms and legs, robotics is a sport that exercises your brain. There's a lot to it, so let's dive in!
The official robotics season kicks off the first Saturday in January, when the year's game is officially revealed. This game will typically involve two groups of three robots picking up balls and shooting them into goals or hoops or the like, competing against other bots for points. In 2022, the game was sort of like basketball, with bots shooting into a raised goal in the center of the field for points.
Above are two games - one from our first event and one from the world competition in 2022. We have red bumpers with our team number, 2959, printed on both matches. Check it out and see what you think!
(If you want to see more, you can head over to thebluealliance.com, where all of our matches are recorded and saved.)
Individual Game Structure
Let's start with what you probably care about the most - the structure of the game! The game itself is typically composed of three sections: autonomous period, tele-op, and endgame. Let's explore each of these in a bit more detail.
Autonomous period, or "auton" is the first fifteen seconds of the game. During this time, drivers are entirely forbidden to touch their controls; everything is entirely programmed. The bots move according to their pre-programmed actions, which typically means picking up a ball and firing and or moving a set amount. Anything scored during autonomous is usually worth a lot more than anything scored for the rest of the match.
Tele-op is the bulk of the match. During this time, bots will attempt to score, defend against other bots, and otherwise compete. A bell sound signals the start of tele-op, and drivers are allowed to directly pilot the bots now (hence the name).
Endgame is the last 30 seconds of the game. During endgame, bots are usually directed to climb some sort of bar or set of bars for points and ranking points. It is still legal to score during this time, and bots will not receive a penalty for not hanging, so it is often a tactical decision to continue scoring for a time in order to receive more ranking points or points than generally might have been possible. In order to hang, drivers usually move the bot into place beneath the bar or bars in question, pressing a pre-programmed button and causing the bot to extend itself up to the bar or hanging point.
A game usually lasts two minutes, with some variation depending on the year. This means there is room for many different matches within a single day, so an event usually consists of a great many individual games.
Ranking Points VS Points
The two terms "points" and "ranking points" can prove quite confusing at first. When it comes down to it, points are the score that it requires to win an individual match. You usually earn points for each sequential bar climbed during endgame or each ball scored during the whole game. The alliance with the most points wins the match. You earn a set number of ranking points for achieving checkpoints like winning a match, scoring at least a set number of balls across the whole match, or getting at least a set number of points on hang, or other such like. There is usually only the opportunity to gain a handful of ranking points each game, and they are what determines how you are ranked in terms of other teams. If a team is of high enough ranking, then it becomes alliance captain, which is elaborated upon further under the alliance selection heading.
Set up, Pit scouting, and Practice Rounds
There is a defined structure for robotics events (which is what an individual competition is called). Events span from around one to three days, and they begins with set up, pit scouting, and practice rounds.
After the team travels to the predetermined location, we will set up in the pit, which is the location that our bot is stored and worked on throughout the event. Once all the teams mostly settle in, then we begin with pit scouting. This is where we and other teams send out groups to interview students from each team and gather general information about each team's bot and individual skills, such as whether they prefer to be more defensive or offensive or if they have a tank or swerve drive. This information can help us know what teams we would pick in alliance selections and how we can best strategize with them in the future.
While pit scouting is going on, we then move on to practice rounds. These are informal and optional games where bots can get used to the field and test out any features they may find necessary. These typically last for the first half of the first day of competition.
The second half of that day is usually where qualification rounds begin. If you are appearing as a spectator, this is what you probably want to see. If you are appearing at the event to watch a particular team compete, you can see what times their matches are on thebluealliance.com, either under that team's information or the event name itself (This is the site we use as well - it's a good one to remember or get as an app on your phone!).
Qualification rounds are randomly generated seeds where three-team alliances are put on either the "red alliance" or the "blue alliance." Blue allianced teams will then compete against red allianced teams and vice-versa for that particular game. You can always tell what alliance a team is on from the colors of their bumper, which will always match whatever particular alliance they are on. Note: alliances change for every qualification round, and alliance colors can change accordingly. Just because a team is on blue alliance one round doesn't mean they will be the same on the next round.
The qualification round period lasts for the majority of the event itself, and each team usually is involved in 12 qualification rounds spread throughout that time. The second day opens early with qualification rounds, and they continue for the rest of the day. Depending on how many teams there are and how many breaks occur in-between, qualification rounds can also extend into the next day for a certain amount of time, typically until about lunchtime. Afterwards, alliance selection begins.
Alliance selection determines what alliances the teams will each have for the elimination rounds, which are how the winning teams of the event are found. If you are appearing to spectate a particular team, it is important to remember that only a set number of teams can continue on to the elimination rounds with an alliance, so your team may or may not be chosen and proceed onto the next part of the event.
Each team elects one member of their team to be their team representative. The leading teams' team representatives will then become alliance captains. Depending on the event itself, there will be a set number of possible alliance captains, which will be chosen in order from the top teams in terms of ranking points. These alliance captains then have the ability to choose other teams to be on their alliance for elimination rounds. As the specific rules for alliance selection are explained at matches and can vary from year to year, we will not elaborate further on precisely how they are chosen. But alliance captains will make their selection, and eventually all slots will be filled and alliances chosen. The remaining teams which were not chosen can remain in case one of the teams on an alliance does not or cannot make an appearance during competition, during which one of the remaining teams may fill its place. Otherwise, the remaining teams will not be able to compete in elimination rounds and will simply watch the remainder of the competition in anticipation of the final awards segment.
For the remainder of the competition, alliances will face off against one another in what can be considered a typical bracket. Unlike a typical bracket, however, each alliance must win two out of three matches against their opposing in order to proceed.
Elimination rounds usually take place on the final event day and take much less time than the qualification rounds overall. If an alliance is beaten, it is eliminated out of the competition and the winning alliance proceeds. The rounds end once a final alliance is deemed winner.
There are multiple awards which can be won in an event and distributed to teams after elimination rounds conclude. Throughout the competition, judges for the awards can be found in the pits interviewing students to see what team is worthy of what award. Engineering innovation is just one example of such awards, given to a team whose design is deemed exemplary.
The most prestigious award in robotics is the Chairman's Award, and a specific essay and presentation, both centered around the community impact of a team, are given to judges by teams which choose to compete. The winning team of this particular award automatically goes to the state competition, and the Chairman's Award winner(s) at the state competition automatically go to the world competition.
There's always a bit more at each event that isn't so easily outlined, but you'll just have to go to our events find out for yourself! Check out our calendar for relevant dates.
Competition Season, Offseason, and Experience
The robotics season is a few month period where students meet with their team to design a robot in response to the game, which changes every season in order to make necessary new designs each year. There are a couple months before competition itself which we call "build season" because it is when we plan, make schematics for, and build the bot itself.
We then begin "competition season" with our first official game, where our bot will be on a team against other bots and be ranked. Throughout competition season, we continue to improve our bot just like build season. If we place well enough against other teams in these first events, we will have a chance to move on to state competition, just like how you'd have a state competition in cross country or any other sport. Unlike most sports, however, there is also a chance to qualify for the world competition if we also fare well in the state competition. In the world competition, teams from countries all around the world have the opportunity to play with and against one another.
This sounds simple enough. We build a robot in response to a prompt, then have it compete against other bots with the aim of eventually placing in higher levels of competition.
But that's just the half of it. When competition ends, the "off-season" begins, which is the period of time between seasons without any official games occurring. The off-season stretches from the very beginning of summertime to January, where build season for another year then kicks off. During the off-season, outreach becomes paramount, and it is here that the true importance of robotics becomes realized.
Using the skills of teamwork, professionalism, know-how, and practicality that we naturally develop through each robotics season, our team then turns to the community and asks itself how we can positively impact those around us. During COVID-19, we held a blood drive and made custom ear-savers for mask-wearing paramedics. We make visits to places like the Logan Autism center to inspire children to explore STEM and excite them about opportunities in their careers, aid the community in times of crisis, and help others like only we can by hosting events like STEM camps for kids who would otherwise be unable to access the hands-on educational learning at our disposal. Through actions like this, we seek to give back to our communities.
And our team is not alone in these endeavours -- volunteer-work and activism is so paramount to robotics itself that the most prestigious award in all of robotics (the Chairman's Award) is entirely centered around community aid and involvement. It should also be mentioned that outreach is an important part of the entire year, not just the off-season. It does tend to be more concentrated at that time due to the additional time on our hands, though.
In working hard during just a few months to produce a unique and fully-operational robot, see it through competitions, and use those newly garnered skills to help our local community, robotics has an unparalleled ability to form its own community. Strong bonds form between team members, between other teams, and between team members and the people those members work to influence. These bonds are fundamental for us, establishing reliable and comforting places were we feel that we belong. Robotics friends can very easily become life-long friends.
In addition to forming strong emotional centers, however, this forged community also provides unequaled opportunities for career growth. In the process of constructing our bot, our team interacts with manufacturing companies and others from all over the STEM field. It is more common than not to receive offers for internships, apprenticeships, or even job offerings from these locations. With such a head start in high school, we often find that this sport of ours provides a stepping off point into professional life. With the connections formed within our community, similar career opportunities can also be found from the very areas that we aid in outreach.
These developed skills from robotics have also begun to be recognized as the advantages that they are from companies worldwide, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarship funds are offered to the students in robotics. A robotics member often will find the simple credential of being involved with a team to prove very swaying amongst STEM companies as well, providing to many a much easier job-finding experience.
So robotics is a sport that encompasses many things -- it prepares us for the future, arms us with bonds and confidence in ourselves, and reshapes the community around us for the better, all while still remaining a fun experience to have in-between school, extra-circulars, and other sports.
Outreach is one of the most important things if not the most important thing a team does in robotics. Through it, teams are able to uplift those around them, instigating beneficial changes and promoting a greater integration and love of STEM for all. Our team has hosted STEM camps for students from impoverished communities without access to the materials we have, better enabling them to see firsthand what STEM really means from a practical, hands-on standpoint. We also look for areas where our community is in need, constructing specialized Go Baby Go carts, a type of small car for kids, for children with physical and developmental disabilities who would otherwise be unable to drive them. This served a dual purpose, enabling children to have fun and feel empowered despite their unique struggles and showing to them the equalizing power of STEM when actively utilized to solve a problem. Through similar activities, our team is constantly looking for ways to beneficially impact the community, just as other robotics teams seek to impact.
A lesser discussed facet of robotics is the necessity of sponsorships for the majority of teams. Though some teams receive funds from their parent school or schools, for many of those schools those funds prove insufficient for the work required to run the team for a season. In addition, many teams don't receive funds from their schools at all, and others aren't school-based -- like the CW Tech Robotarians. This means that running an optimal season almost always requires external aid.
To accomplish this, 2959 is one of many teams that allows students to take the initiative.